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A Defining War for Young Jews

The following is a transcript of Episode 160 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, we’re recording today’s introduction on October 25th, 2023. 

This week’s episode is sponsored by Sarah Boden, a member of Hartman Institute’s new giving society. Sarah supports our work with rabbis, enabling them to confront the challenges facing Jewish communities today. Right now, that means mobilizing the Israeli rabbis’ network to support grieving families in Israel, especially all of those displaced from the south and the north. 

One of the many disorienting feelings I had last week in Israel, and there were many, came in watching the emergence of another new strange front of the war, that one which is the militant ideological war that began to emerge on a number of college campuses. There’s a lot to say about this topic, but we’re definitely going to develop some other episodes to the subject, on the ways that reflexive pro-Palestinianess has become a key pillar of the American left, on the culture of standing with the oppressed that makes people blind to the overreaches of the oppressed and the massive failures over decades of pro-Israel hasbara on campus, on the brokenness in the moral discourse of academia right now. 

And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues before this week, and working on parts of it, but still, it was fascinating and sobering to watch it at something of a remove. Israelis were mourning their dead and preparing for war. Hamas was firing rockets, crowing about their victory, and also preparing for war, and meanwhile, the American college campus was turning into a kind of violent color war.

Strangely, this was of a lot of interest to many Israelis, many of whom I spoke to were sadly and morbidly curious as to why their suffering was so visibly irrelevant in the eyes of the world, who genuinely could not understand how their complex society could be reduced so neatly to the story of good and evil, and that they somehow have become evil. All of this Israelis looked at with wonderment from afar, while they buried their dead. 

Meanwhile, I spent a bunch of time last week with young people who might have been college students on those campuses but for the fact that they took a year off to be in Israel before starting school, students on the Hartman gap-year program Hevruta, a program that brings together 30 or so American high school graduates before college, and 30 or so Israelis before they start the army, for a year of living and learning together. 

Hevruta is a gap-year program like many others, but we see it more as a massive social experiment. If we believe in Jewish peoplehood, what does it mean to truly incubate Jewish peoplehood, to create conditions at a formative age when Israeli and diaspora Jews can experiment with the ideas of shared community, of shared responsibility, testing out what it means to build loyalty to one another, or to engender radical curiosity about radical difference. What would happen?
Hevruta’s been running for a decade now. I wanna tell you that this past month, we’ve seen what happens. Our alumni are tethered to one another across the distance. American college students are closely in touch with their Israeli friends in the army. Their communities are in tact, and caring for one another. They have different politics, left and right in both Israel and diaspora, but the underlying ethos is one of shared community and shared responsibility. It’s amazing to behold.

This year’s cohort was struggling a bit when I found them. They were tested at the outset of the year, before they had formed and forged a community, by this war that is dangerous and also feels dangerous. A war that’s distracting to their schedule and is already awakening divides between Israelis and Americans earlier in the program than is comfortable. 

I think these students will ultimately be okay. They’re going to find a way to integrate and incorporate the challenges of this year into curriculum of their experience, and I can say, when I found them, they were also really eager to just get back to learning. But the whole year in front of them is not going to be easy. 

So I sat with four students to hear from them directly. Two Americans:

Avi: My name is Avi Wiederhorn and I’m from Westport, Connecticut.  

Molly: My name is Molly Menashe and I’m from Los Angeles California  

Yehuda: And two Israelis. 

Noga: My name is Noga Novis Deutsch and I’m from Kibbutz Chanatan, Israel. 

Itamar: My name is Itamar Solomon Silverstein, I’m from Ashkelon, Israel,  

Yehuda: I believe programs like this are the only way to envision a future of Jewish peoplehood, one that’s honest about what divides us and rigorous enough to force us into the work of holding that difference and fighting our way through it. 

An hour with serious young people was enough for me to feel more optimistic right now about the Jewish future, and I’m hoping it will be for you as well.
Tell me a little about what you were hoping for for this mechina year, for the Israelis, or gap-year in Israel, for the Americans. 

Noga: Mostly I wanted a year to transfer from high school to the Army, get to meet people for the sake of like, just making friendships.

Avi: It was never a question for me of whether or not I would do a gap year in Israel. It was more of a question of where I would be doing my gap year in Israel.  

Itamar: So next year I’m going to do combat in the army, and I felt like the moving from high school to the army was just too much for me.

I can’t see myself right now serving my country without knowing why I’m here and why am I doing those things. So I felt like Hevruta and a gap-year will help me discover those sides, in my personality. 

Molly: I do plan on going to college next year, but I felt like there’s no other opportunity like this. I’m never going to have another chance to do this. And so, no part of me was hesitant to take the year off.  

Noga: I really liked Hevruta because I liked that it was a very pluralistic space. I also wanted to meet people from more varied backgrounds, which I think by meeting the Americans you get that. 

Molly: I really wanted to immerse myself in as much Jewish learning as I could, whether about the State of Israel, textual learning. I really wanted to surround myself with people who were looking for a similar experience to me and who also wanted thoughtful intellectual discussions. And I’ve really found that here in an amazing way.  

Avi: I want to really refine my own beliefs and challenge those beliefs and have that challenge redefine the beliefs, or change my beliefs, but strengthen how I believe in it. 

Itamar: I know that if I’ll go to combat with the things I’m going to learn here in Hevruta, about myself and Judaism and why the Jewish country and everything, will just make me do better decisions and do my national service better. 

Molly: College will wait for me, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any experiences. This is really where I’m supposed to be right now.  

Noga: I did not expect there to be a war.  

Avi: I remember being woken up by one of my apartment-mates, who was basically yelling that there was a siren, and I at first in my American mind thought, fire alarm, we go to the roof in the event of a fire alarm, which we’ve all thought is somewhat funny. So I didn’t fully grasp it at first, and then I realized that it was not a fire alarm.  

Molly: I’d already been in Jerusalem for two sirens in my life. So I wasn’t super nervous. I was like, okay, it’ll be okay. We’re gonna go to the bomb shelter. 

Itamar: I’m very used to it, to the sirens at these hard times. All of my family lives in Ashkelon and I just knew that they will be safe. 

Noga: I had never experienced a siren before that day. I felt like an imposter Israeli, cause everyone around me, all the Israelis, had had at least heard a siren, but where I live, we don’t really get any. 

Molly: And I remember the Israelis were joking around.  

Noga: I didn’t feel scared at the beginning,  

Molly: People were not too worried.  

Noga: I thought it was just another miftza, or, you know, like Magen Chomot, something that happens every so often, and that it would pass.  

Noga: And then, you know, people started checking their phones, and I keep Shabbat, so I was just kind of like, peeking over my shoulder, trying to understand what’s going on. 

Molly: The first person saw the video of the terrorists in the trucks, and someone said, like, their friend was kidnapped, and the immediate mood shift, 

Noga: It kind of sunk in that this is not normal, this isn’t the usual, little Israeli conflict you get. People suddenly stopped joking. And they were just in shock.

Molly: I get chills just thinking about it. It was so, so heavy to be in that room in that moment. 

Itamar: When I saw the first picture of the terrorist guys in Be’eri, I just knew that the war was going to come.  

Noga: I remember opening my phone, which I, you know, hadn’t done ever, and, you know, my friends were calling me.

Avi: Most of us took out our phones and texted our American parents or Israeli parents, whatever it was. 

Noga: I texted my parents and told them I was fine 

Yehuda: Maybe this moment’s emergency was the first moment in the program of many when the Americans would begin to appreciate the Israeli experience as something quite different than their own, and something way beyond what a usual curriculum of a gap-year program could offer them. 

Avi: My parents on the East Coast weren’t awake, they didn’t know what was happening.  

Molly: I think the Americans were all worried, but in a totally different way, because you could see it in the Israelis eyes. It was fear, even like the conversations that you would have with them, it felt like no one was actually present. their minds were in other places.

Avi: You could see people getting calls from their parents, of their dads who just got called up from miluim, or their siblings, that you know their siblings are in combat right now, and you know that that worry is going on. 

Molly: That made it all so much more real for the Americans to see it. See how close to home it was really hitting for everyone. 

Avi: I do feel that I have, not exactly the same experience as an Israeli, but slightly more in that than some of the Americans, because I do have a sister who lives in Israel and who is now actively in miluim, in the South.  

Yehuda: So something shifted in Hevruta. Something shifted from being an experiment in building community across difference, to becoming an exercise in real-time empathy through a shared, trying experience.

Itamar: Right now, like, in the last week and a half, I’m just trying to be supportive and explain others what’s going on and calm people down. 

Yehuda: I wanna push you on that for a second’cause it sounds backwards. It sounds like if you’ve grown up in Ashkelon, you’ve lived with sirens your whole life. That the idea that somebody might say to you, actually, no, this is not normal. And that you would be calming other people down even though your family is in the proximity of a lot of danger.  

So, where does that come from? Like, can imagine that somebody who’s an American would be like, A, you’re not fine, and B, let me be the one who’s supporting you. It’s you and your family who are going through this as opposed to the other way around. 

Itamar: I feel like a lot of the kids in Ashkelon will feel the same as me because when you at the age of two and three experience that and seeing it in your eyes see the Iron Dome shooting every single missile in Ashkelon. We’re very used to it. It is normal. 

Yehuda: Without taking a position on the legitimacy of this, a number of American gap year kids, for very legitimate reasons, have gone home. If you’re comfortable sharing, have you thought about leaving and going home? And if not, how, what’s the calculus been for you? 

Molly: I mean, I’ve considered it as I, like my best friends have been leaving the country. America did start evacuating citizens by boat and by plane. But also I do feel relatively safe in Jerusalem, thank God. 

I already feel helpless being here. We can only do so much volunteering, and I know that at home I would feel so much worse, and that I would be so far removed. I would be constantly checking the news, and I think that that wouldn’t be healthier for me to be there. And so at least here I’m able to make some difference and do something, do as much as I can. 

We came here to experience Israel and the truth is this is Israel and this what we signed up for. And so as long as my parents remain okay with it, I’m, going to stick through. 

Yehuda: You know, we assumed for the last couple of years that the formative event for this generation, so your generation, was COVID. But even after a week and a half, it’s starting to feel as though this might be the kind of historic event that is going to shape a generation of Jews in a way that’s totally different than any other.  

Do you feel yourself at all changing? Your opinions, your feelings, your sense of anxiety, as a result of what it has felt like to live through first the massive trauma of those first couple of days and now the kind of bubbling war that’s emerging here in Israel? 

Noga: I have a lot of friends who are in the army right now. And had just finished their basic training. And are now in the south. And that’s a very, you know, every few days they’ll send me a text, I’m fine. And then they won’t answer for the next three or four days.

I do think that some of my opinions have shifted. My confidence in Israel as a state has dropped. I’m, you know, not sure that Israel will make it through like how it was, if at all.  

And my opinions about peace with Gaza have also shifted. I don’t know if peace is a possibility anymore. I hope it is. But it’s much harder to be as confident that there is a solution that will enable it.  

Molly: I constantly feel the weight of the people that I’m really close to that are serving in the army, and I’m constantly thinking about them and worried about them. 

So that’s very real. And I came to Hevruta to hone in on my own relationship with Israel and Judaism and really secure the way that I feel before I go out into the American secular world, so that I can have a stronger sense of that and nothing would be written in concrete but I kind of wanted to have a better understanding and now I feel like my relationship with this country’s totally taken a 180. And I don’t know how I’m going to feel coming out of this, but I know it’ll be very different. 

Itamar: I was never so sure in my opinions about the conflict and about the peace solution and about everything because I really believe in peace right now. I really believe that the government of Israel and the United States should help us reach something as they did before, but just hope for better solutions. 

And I strongly feel connected to this land right now because, and Noga said, I have friends whose right now, even reserved, and, or got recruited like two months ago. And just calling them and say like, hey man, are you okay? And yeah, I’m serving my country as all of us are going to do and I’m doing my job.

Yehuda: For the last 15 years, it was conceivable that you could spend your three years in a combat unit and see very little combat, that’s now no longer the case. In a different timeline, you would have just finished basic training now, as Noga said before, and preparing to deploy. 

Itamar: I’m the only son, with three girls in my house. So my only concern is what my mom will think at night and what she feels when she’ll know that I’m the one who was talking about the news about doing operation in Gaza and the south of Lebanon. The feeling that I need to go to combat is just getting stronger and stronger. I know that I have a lot to give for any place that I go to, and I had a lot of places that I wanted to go in the army, but it just feels like combat is the right place for me to help to serve the country.

Yehuda: The American students will face a different kind of challenge upon their return to the States and Canada. College campuses here are a difficult landscape to wrestle with Jewish identities, and especially now, many are frought with anti-Semitic discourse. I asked the American Hevruta students what they are looking forward to, or are nervous about, as they think about what’s ahead of them.” 

Avi: So I’m going to the University of Michigan.

Yehuda: And by the way, for our listeners, that is what he is wearing on his sweatshirt. Loyal to his soon-to-be school. Go ahead. 

Avi: So, the University of Michigan has a huge, very active Jewish community, but it also has a very large pro-Palestine, anti-Israel community.  

I’ve seen some very moving things done by University of Michigan. I got an email from them checking in to make sure I was okay. I saw a video of them playing Misheberach on the bell tower, which was very moving, and they had a vigil with lots and lots of people. 

But also from my friend who’s there, she feels a little bit slightly abandoned that they haven’t officially condemned the attack. And it feels like they’re tiptoeing around it because of both big populations that they have. 

Molly: I’m going to Brown, and it’s obviously a very progressive school, and that’s part of the reason I chose it, and now that is making me nervous to go back, because yes, there are the Zionist, pro-Israel voices, but also there’s a very dominant pro-Palestine community, and they’ve been protesting, there have been horrible, horrible things said at these protests that make me fear for my life if I were to be there for that. 

And that’s definitely scary, so I’ve been struggling internally with how, when I get there, I’m gonna bring in my experience of this year and all of things I’ve seen and the stories I’ve heard, and also be able to engage in a way where I’m not minimizing what the other side is saying and not disregarding the life that is lost in Gaza. And so I don’t really yet know how I’m gonna navigate that, but I think that it’s definitely going to take a lot of thought,  

Yehuda: This program is based on the, a kind of a hypothesis that Israeli and American Jewry are these two vibrant and thriving Jewish communities. In some ways, it’s not obvious how much we need each other anymore in order to be independently thriving. The fact that some of you are nodding already maybe means you’ve thought about that yourself. 

And we’ve noticed at the Institute that a lot of the efforts that are underway to try to bridge that divide between Americans and Israelis tend to be very short-lived. You know, it’s a week-long program here, or a visit of this person to that place, or sometimes it’s explaining. Let me explain Israel to American Jews, or explain American Judaism to Israelis, which is, by the way, harder.  

And then I’ll convince you of the legitimacy of these two. And our effort has been to say, if we’re going to try this, let’s try it the real way. Let’s force everybody to really be in one community together for a year. 

Now, I know that a lot of you chose this program exactly for that reason. Americans choose, they want to be in a program with Israelis, and Israelis have many mechinot to choose. To choose this one is to choose a program in which the Americans are a major component. 

But I kind of believe that we’re not really going to answer that question of how much we need each other, or whether it matters, until we can answer the question, what ways are we obligated to each other? 

So in what ways do you think you as an Israeli, or you as an American, are obligated to your Israeli counterparts? 

Itamar: A lot of the news, the Israelis and the Americans, shows a little bit of a little bit of a little bit of what’s actually going on right now. And I feel that we’re obligated, to help them see what’s actually going on right here. Like, if you live in Israel, you should know what’s going on in Israel, not from the news’ eyes, but in your own eyes. 

Noga: It’s just makes the Jewish community grow more, be more diverse, in terms of Jewish identity, Israel there aren’t as large populations as the American Jewish community. And I think it’s very important to educate each other about those types of Judaism. I think we learn more and the religion just, you know, develops more from that.

Molly: Even before the war, in the most amazing, selfless ways, the Israelis, they’ve been offering up their homes, asking if we need anything, so they definitely act as though they do feel obligated to us.  

Itamar: I got a lot of offers from my American friends like, if you want to come, you and your family and everything, you need come to America, you got my house, you got family to help you. 

Noga: If there was a situation where they felt like they could no longer practice their religious freedom in America, I think Israel, I hope, would have been a safe space for them to come and vice versa. Now you can see it, that in this situation in which Israel is at war and the Jews here are not. safe. I think the American Jewish communities are obligated to provide a home. The Israeli community might be one, but I also think the Jewish community is also one that is obligated to each other.  

Molly: I came here to understand Israel, to immerse myself in that, and now when it comes down to it, it also is my obligation to support this country and support my friends who are going to fight for this country and who have lived here their whole lives in whatever ways I can. And there’s not always a way to do that, but if it’s someone to rant to, a shoulder to cry on, whatever it is, I want to make sure that I’m here for my Israeli friends who are experiencing this war in a way that I can’t comprehend at all.  

Itamar: Specifically for Hevruta, I think that the small things that are just make me feel better. Like yesterday we saw Cars 2 together and you know, just like a break.

Yehuda: Did you say Cars 2?

Itamar: Cars 2. Yeah. 

Yehuda: Oh, okay. I thought that’s what you said. 

Itamar: Just like every night we do a movie night, mostly the American movies because they’re better films than the Israeli ones. But it just gives you a break and gives you a way to just relax, laugh with your friends. And I’m really, really thankful to the American friends for that.

Avi: I don’t think Israel as a state for the Jewish people could be a state where all of the Jewish people in the world live. And I don’t think as many people would feel comfortable and safe in America as Jews if Israel didn’t exist same way. And I think part of the responsibility of each is that, they see the actions of the state and say, oh, that’s the Jewish people. So that’s a lot of responsibility.

Then one of the obligations for the Jewish community outside of Israel is to, like I said before, is they are the personal connection. It’s much easier to go, Jews are all horrible, when you’ve never had a conversation with a Jew. 

If you go, my next door neighbor is a Jew, and I know him, I don’t think he’d support exactly what’s going on. It’s much easier to go, well, maybe this thing is good, maybe this thing is bad, but it’s a human being that I know. I think, while Israel is like the beacon of Judaism to the world, the role of the Jews outside of Israel is be kind of the emissary Judaism.  

Yehuda: It’s a very American question. What’s one thing that’s making you hopeful these days?  

Avi: You know, I asked the same question to Donniel Hartman the other night. And I kind of agree mostly with his answer, is that what happens after could be a source of hope.

Itamar: Israel knows when to put the other things aside and prioritize her, meaning, effort, like the fact that right now in national security government, their only target is to beat Hamas and do what they need to do. And they put aside their reform and the religion-state questions, they put everything aside because we need to focus on what’s important right now. It makes me feel very hopeful.  

Noga: The incredible volunteering work that I see being done all over Israel, the ways people have been, prioritizing their time and their resources and giving and giving more.  

Molly: There’s a thrift store in Talpiot that said that anybody from the south whose home was destroyed, they can come and take whatever clothes they need. 

Itamar: From the American perspective, they’ve given us hope by actually helping us by, if I’m talking like in the name of all the Americans, with money, with soldiers. 

Molly: Whether it’s the American Jews sending bulletproof vests because there aren’t enough for the soldiers here or offering up their homes, that kind of thing. And also within Israel, the WhatsApp groups that are coordinating shivas and making sure that there are enough people at lone soldiers’ funerals. And as heartbreaking as that is, that’s, like, beautiful, important work for everybody to be able do.  

Noga: Fear, I think, can cause you to be very selfish. But I feel like I don’t see a lot of that right now in Israel. And even like, I don’t know, like the cell phone brand, Golan Telecom, is giving everyone free data for the next month. So it’s not just the individuals, it’s also Israel as a whole and the hotels which are hosting families.  

Molly: That’s truly the nature of the Jewish people, people willing to be there for each other.  

Avi: What’s going to happen after is something that we can hope for. Whether this unity that we see happening with all the volunteering, is something that is able to be grown and expanded to create a more unified identity, or whether it’s that this actually paves the road for like peaceful solution. 

Noga: And the support from the international community, not just the Jewish community, which is something I didn’t think would ever happen. So many countries say that they support Israel, they support our right to defend ourselves. You know, the U. S., Biden giving money and resources and his very clear support is incredible. 

And it gives me hope that people will be there for the Jewish people. That we won’t have to just rely on the Jewish community itself.

Yehuda: Anything you wanted to say that I didn’t ask you about?

Noga: There’s falafel today. That gives me hope.

Yehuda: That gives you hope. It’s a good falafel at least. 

Itamar: It’s pretty good 

Yehuda: Thanks for listening to our show, and special thanks to our Hevruta cohort members; Avi Wiederhorn, Itamar Solomon Silverstein, Molly Menashe, and Noga Novis Deutsch. Identity/Crisis is produced by M. Louis Gordon and our executive producer Maital Friedman with assistance from Sarina Shohet and Shira Ben-Simon Schonfeld. This episode was edited by M. Louis Gordon and our assistant producer Tessa Zitter, and our music is provided by SoCalled. 

Transcripts of our shows are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them, and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, and about the Hevruta program, visit us online at 

We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or if you have comments about this episode, please write to us at [email protected]

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